On November 22, Britain’s Daily Mirror published a startling allegation: In an April 2004 White House meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush proposed bombing the Arab TV network Al Jazeera’s international headquarters in Qatar. The report was based on a memo stamped “Top Secret” that had been leaked by a Cabinet official in Blair’s government.
Is the allegation “outlandish,” as the White House claims? Or was it a deadly serious option? Until a news organization or British official defies the Official Secrets Act and publishes the five-page memo, we have no way of knowing. But what we do know is that at the time of Bush’s White House meeting with Blair, the Bush Administration was in the throes of a very public, high-level temper tantrum directed against Al Jazeera. The Bush-Blair summit took place on April 16, at the peak of the first US siege of Falluja, and Al Jazeera was there to witness the assault and the fierce resistance.
A day before Bush’s meeting with Blair, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld slammed Al Jazeera in distinctly undiplomatic terms:
Can you definitively say that hundreds of women and children and innocent civilians have not been killed?
I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.
Do you have a civilian casualty count?
Of course not, we’re not in the city. But you know what our forces do; they don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense. It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.
What Al Jazeera was doing in Falluja is exactly what it was doing when the United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan in 2001 and when US forces killed Al Jazeera’s Baghdad correspondent, Tareq Ayoub, during the April 2003 occupation of Baghdad. Al Jazeera was witnessing and reporting on events Washington did not want the world to see.
The Falluja offensive was one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation of Iraq. On April 5, 2004, US forces laid siege to the city after the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries days earlier. When the US forces, led by the First Marine Expeditionary Force, attempted to take Falluja on April 7, they faced fierce guerrilla resistance. A US helicopter attacked a mosque, hitting the minaret and killing at least a dozen people. Within a week, some 600 Iraqis were dead, many of them women and children. By April 9, some thirty Marines had been killed and Falluja had become a symbol of resistance against the occupation.
What was more devastating than the direct resistance US forces encountered in Falluja was the effect the story of the local defense of the city and the US killing of civilians was having on the broader Iraqi population. A handful of unembedded journalists, most prominently from Al Jazeera, were providing the world with independent, eyewitness accounts. Al Jazeera’s camera crew was also uploading video of the devastation for all the world, including Iraqis, to see. Inspired by the defense of Falluja and outraged by the US onslaught, smaller uprisings broke out across Iraq, as members of the Iraqi police and army abandoned their posts, some joining the resistance.
Faced with a public relations disaster, US officials did what they do best–they attacked the messenger. On April 11, with the unembedded reporters exposing the reality of the siege of Falluja, senior military spokesperson Mark Kimmitt declared, “The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies.” A few days later, on April 15, Rumsfeld echoed those remarks calling Al Jazeera “vicious.”
It was the very next day, according to the Daily Mirror, that Bush told Blair of his plan. “He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere,” a source told the Mirror. “Blair replied that would cause a big problem. There’s no doubt what Bush wanted to do–and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.”
To date, there has been no credible rejection of the Mirror‘s report from the White House or 10 Downing Street. Instead, the British government has activated its Official Secrets Act, threatening news organizations that publish any portion of the five-page memo. Already, one British official has been accused of violating the act for allegedly passing it on to a member of Parliament. Former British Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle has called on Blair’s government to release the memo. “It’s frightening to think that such a powerful man as Bush can propose such cavalier actions,” he said. “I hope the Prime Minister insists this memo be published. It gives an insight into the mindset of those who were the architects of war.”
The Bush Administration clearly blamed Al Jazeera for undermining the first siege on Falluja and fueling Iraqi public opinion and resistance against the US occupation. Given Washington’s record of attacking Al Jazeera both militarily and verbally, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Bush Administration could have simply decided that it was time to take the network out. What is needed now is for a British newspaper or magazine to publish the memo for all the world to see–and if they face legal action, they should be backed up by every major media organization in the world. If true, Bush’s threat is a bold confirmation of what many journalists already believe: that the Bush Administration views us all as enemy combatants.